Thursday, March 29, 2007

Well hello there!

"Hello there!" That is what Mr. Black Rat Snake said to Nancy as she was leading a hike last Monday.

We were doing a pre-hike to scout an upcoming Fairfield Glade Hiking Club trip that Ray and Marion are leading. Nancy was in the lead with 3 of us behind her when I heard a gasp. Mr. Snake was lying beside the trail to greet us. Black Rat snakes (sometimes called Eastern Rat Snakes) can be up to 5 feet long. This one was about 4 feet long....approximately the same distance that Nancy jumped back.

These are good snakes. They eat mice and birds by constricting them first. They climb well and I suspect that it was one of these guys that got the bluebird eggs in our nest box last year. Well, generally they are good snakes.

We used to catch one from time to time in Pennsylvania when we were kids and let them wrap themselves all the way up our arms. It was a good trick for casually walking into the cottage and scaring the womenfolk.

Black Rat Snakes are sometimes (and easily) confused with Black Racers (often called Eastern Racers). Black Rat Snakes look all black at first, but as you can see in this photo, in the right light they have lighter scales that give them a pattern. It is usually not as evident as in this picture.

Black Racers, on the other hand, are completely satiny black on the top. Full sized Black Racers are slightly smaller at only about 4 feet long. Also, Black Racers hold their head high when moving rapidly across the ground. Neither snake is venomous but both will bite if handled, especially the Black Racers. Both snakes are found east of the Mississippi from New England to Florida.

So the next time a black snake says "hello" to you try to determine if it is a Black Rat Snake or a Black Racer. Then you will be able to give the proper greeting in response.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

What a Week!

Wow, what a week! What hard work! What fun!

Gary Ruetenik (in the orange shirt) likes to build hiking trails. Gary is a volunteer crew leader or "Wagon Master" who asked if I wanted to help build a section of the Cumberland Trail which will eventually traverse Tennessee from Kentucky to Georgia. About 150 of the 300 miles of trail is finished...all by volunteers. I agreed to help but didn't know how hard the work was...or how much fun.

The fun part was working with 49 great college kids who gave up their spring break time to volunteer and help build the trail. Heck, they came to help Tennessee and they all came from other states. 10-15 students each came from 4 colleges....Longwood University in Virginia, Cazenovia college in NY, Hamilton College in NY, and the University of Wisconsin at River Falls. There were over 100 more students working on another part of the trail. There will be more next week.

I worked all week with the self named "Hard Core Crew" from Longwood University; 9 young women and one young man. They were all hard working, smart, and with the best positive attitudes that you could ask for.

Trust me, it was hard work. The first two days I could hardly get out of the car when I got home. I am not kidding. I either got in better shape or got numb as the week went on because I felt that I worked harder and was less tired each day. But here is an interesting piece of elbow tendonitis and Ray's sore back got better the more we worked.

And how did the trail work go? Well, the guys like Gary who do this regularly said that these were the best crews that they ever had. We completed far more trail than the target for the week and the technical aspects of the trail, such as proper slope, proper drainage, elimination of roots and rocks, safe stone steps, etc., were all perfect.
Here is the whole crew cleaned up and looking good (click on the picture for a larger view).

For more pictures from our week of trail building go to this Picasa Web Album.

There will be many more opportunities to volunteer for this hard work and fun time. Contact me and I will put you in touch with Gary Ruetenik. You can work one day or many, your choice. I can only guarantee that you will feel much better (in many ways) after building trail with a bunch of positive young college students like these.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

You outta see this animal

Slowly but steadily I have been checking off my list of local animals to see. I got another one in the last week....twice. The cute little furbearer in the photo here is a Northern River Otter. These guys once inhabited most of the continental U.S. But like others, they were hunted, trapped and squeezed out of available habitat by their main (including woman I'm sure).

In many parts of the U.S. they have been reintroduced, waterway by waterway....including Tennessee.

I saw this guy (or girl) while fishing on the Caney Fork River a week ago, but I didn't have my camera. I went fishing again a couple of days ago and specifically took my camera just in case I saw him again. I didn't take my big camera with the telephoto lens because I was afraid that if I slipped in the stream that the camera would be drowned. So I put my smaller camera in a double zip lock bag in my fishing vest. I might survive a dunking in 40 degree water, but I am sure that a camera wouldn't. Sure enough I saw him again in just about the same spot along the shore. I had to blow up the picture quite a bit so it isn't crystal clear, but it is about as good as I expected to get of a wild otter.

Otters are about 3-4 feet long including their tail which is about one third of that, so they are much larger than their cousins, weasels, mink, and skunks. They are generally solitary animals except for mothers with young. They primarily eat fish and crayfish. Sources that I have read say they eat mostly non-game fish like suckers, but I am sure that trout are also on their menu.

River otter...check mark. Now if I can only get a picture of red and grey foxes, bobcats, and wild boar.